Things were better back then, when there was an automat on every corner and most of us lived on less than five cents a day. Nowadays, you can’t find a decent hot dog for under 50 bucks and the only people still living on less than five cents a day are in sub-Saharan Africa.
In order to show the world what toughness and true grit were all about, a few grizzled survivors of those awful times held a convention.
“Two-by-four” Riggs had a booth where people took turns stabbing him in his stainless steel heart.
“Put your backs into it, you wussies!” he shouted at the men in line. “You won’t impress your girlfriends that way!”
“Well maybe that’s what the ladies like these days,” one of the men sass-mouthed in reply. ”Wimps, I mean.”
Riggs spat a wad of tobacco at the sass-mouther’s feet. “I ought to beat you to death using just a toothpick and a dill pickle,” he said, although he knew in his stainless steel heart of hearts that his nemesis was right.
Terry “Cloth” Tyell raised himself from the dead on the third day for the sixth consecutive time, surpassing his previous best and setting a record that no messiah is ever going to break.
“It’s all in the wrists,” he told ace Millennial media journalist Camden Camden.
“Do you think the young people appreciate what you’re doing?” she asked him.
Tyell consulted his notes, which consisted mostly of lewd doodles. “I’m just happy to be here, Mrs. Camden. I take it one day at a time.”
“Ms. Camden,” she said.
“Well now there’s a pleasant surprise,” said Tyell.
Camden ignored his flirtatious remark. “Are you the anointed one?”
“Oh no, there hasn’t been one of God’s anointed in these parts going on near a century, ma’am. The only thing I’ve got in my favor is clean living, and clean living’s something you can’t put a price on. You might recall that one of those dot-com companies tried to do just that, to put a price on clean living, and it didn’t turn out well. I believe they’re still sorting out the cleanlivingvaluation.com bankruptcy.”
“Turkey Shoot” Jones ate an entire box of hollow-point bullets and waited for them to expand in his stomach. He wasn’t as spry as he used to be, but it would be a cold day in hell before he’d think twice about eating ammunition.
“Those sure were some times we had,” “Two-by-four” Riggs said to him.
“Yeah, they were pretty good ones,” Jones said.
“Great ones, even.”
“Don’t go getting all carried away now, ‘Two-by-four.’ You know full well that we were bivouacking in the forest, surviving on slow-moving fauna and whatever waste we scavenged from the landfill.”
“Weren’t so bad, Turkey Shoot. We found that one mossy log near the babbling brook and gnawed away at that tasty treat for a month of Sundays. I haven’t had a meal half as fine since I came back to civilization.”
“Old Bear” Huggins had a special place in his body for what was happening here at the convention, and that was the secret compartment in his wooden leg where he kept his cyanide tablets and hemlock.
“Takes one to know one,” he said into an audio recorder someone was holding in front of him.
“Tell us about how you lost the leg,” someone in the crowd said.
When he heard the request, Huggins began to tear up. Even though it was his claim to fame, it wasn’t easy thinking about the accident.
“‘Herc’ Broadsides broke my leg, sonnyboy. I was covering home plate the way I usually did, and everybody who was anybody knew I was the meanest hombre that had ever laced boots in that league. Everybody except ‘Herc,’ that is. He came barreling around third and his pace didn’t slacken. By the time he was halfway home, I had the ball in my glove. At that point it was just mano a mano, a game of chicken, and who would flinch first? Neither one of us was willing to buckle, but instead of going for the plate and the winning run, ‘Herc’ tackled me and broke my leg. Then he spat in my face and stomped off the field. ‘I’m out of this game and you’re out of this league,’ he said to me as he walked away. We hung on to win the Championship Series, but ‘Herc’ was right: I never played another game of baseball. My leg got gangrenous a few weeks after the injury because I’d refused medical treatment on account of not believing in it, and after that I found myself saddled with old woody here. It’s not so bad, though.”
At this point in his narrative, Huggins opened the compartment in his leg and removed a flask of hemlock. He took a few sips.
“For courage, you see. I’ve never had enough.”
It was shameful, watching these old men rehash their apocryphal glory days. Perhaps one in 10 told the truth. History for them was terra incognita, as it is for the rest of us.
“Can you remember everything that happened yesterday?” psychologist Johannes Climachus asked me.
“No, I can’t.”
“Can you remember anything that happened yesterday?”
“Sure, I remember a few things.”
“But what about the things you can’t remember? Aren’t they far more important, seeing as how they’re now lost? Lost things are more valuable than found things, you know.”
I lived a life that wasn’t heroic in the way that these men thought theirs had been. I felt bad about that. But given my unassuming circumstances, could anyone have done better? I didn’t have great labors to complete. I cleaned bathrooms for $7 an hour. People looked right through me, and I’m sure they still do.
“Don’t worry yourself overmuch. We can’t all be big shots, Brian.”
“I don’t have a reason to keep going,” I said.
“Perhaps we should increase the dosage of your medication. Would you consider taking a tranquilizer? We’ve had excellent results in situations like yours with a combination of lorazepam and the Emsam patch.”
If you suffered 50 years ago, you could become a hero. Lefty “The Lefthander” Leftwich had a smile that could stop traffic and he once used it to cause a 50-car pileup on US-30. He’d grown up in a chicken coop, his closest relatives terrorized him, and by the time he reached his 20s he was completely insane. I couldn’t top that. I just had a guilty mind, a mind that caused me to writhe with agony on the anxious bench at revival meetings.
“Two-by-four” Riggs touched me gently on my shoulder. “Penny for your thoughts, kid?”
“I’m not right in the head,” I said. “I’m having a real hard time of it.”
“You should lift weights, kid. Nothing cheers a man up quite like physical exercise.”
I raced out of that convention hall and signed up for a gym membership. I kept “Two-by-four” Riggs’ sage advice in mind as I grew larger and larger. After years of training and hardgaining, my friends were able to hear me coming long before they saw me. This was a moral victory of great importance, although its precise quality would never be known to my children or my children’s children. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t speculate about it, because speculation is more than welcome in an impatient world like ours.